Ostracism: selection and de-selection in ancient Greece

Ostracism: selection and de-selection in ancient Greece

By Paul Cartledge

History and Policy website (2006)

Introduction: One of the very first things that a citizen of a modern western liberal democracy instantly thinks of, when she or he does think about modern western liberal democracy at all, is voting: voting in ‘free and fair’ elections, one person one vote, everyone counting for one and no one for more than one. That is just what is conspicuously, definitionally, not on offer in un- or anti-democratic regimes, whether it is President Kim Il Jong’s North Korea or President Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

Yet by one of those ironies that remind us sharply of the paradox that we both are and are not ‘all Greeks’ (in Shelley’s hopeful phrase), elections were not considered uniquely or even distinctively democratic in ancient Greece. Indeed, they were thought oligarchic, a mark of regimes where rule (archy) was in the hands of the rich few (oligoi), as opposed to in the power (kratos) of the people (demos). Elections were believed to, and surely did, favour differentially the ‘notables’ – those whom the Greeks called the ‘well-known’ or ‘the most conspicuous’ – meaning basically the richest, sometimes also the best born, and certainly the best educated.

This was mainly because ancient Greek states were face-to-face, direct forms of self-government. They did not recognise and would not have wanted to recognise our indirect, representative mode of democracy, which an ancient Greek democrat would have dismissed as elective oligarchy anyway. Nor did the ancient Greeks recognise anything like our notion of the separation of powers: in a demo-kratia the demos exercised its kratos in the legislative, executive and judicial spheres alike: the very same people acting as both judge and jury in matters of law and decision-making for which they had been the original voters too.

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